In order for an art form to be considered 'popular' it must be accessible by large numbers of people. In the Middle Ages, art such as that found in illuminated manuscripts would probably not have been available for anyone who was not either wealthy enough to purchase a book or who was creating the art themselves, such as those in monastic orders. Similarly, the vast and intricate tapestries hung to prevent drafts were probably only to be found in the large houses where those wealthy enough could afford them. In the Middle Ages, large numbers of people would only have been found in the growing urban centres of Europe. The hub of these urban centres, be it London, Reims, Chartres, or Paris, was their towering and elaborate gothic cathedrals (over 500 churches were built in France alone from 1170-1270). These buildings, far from being used only on Sundays for worship, acted as the focus of the community, where people would gather throughout the week to pray, conduct business, stroll, and gossip. One of the most accessible mediums of religious art to be found in the cathedrals was undoubtedly the huge stained glass windows that illuminated the vast interiors with streams of coloured light. Although a relatively minor art form today, glass-painting in the Middle Ages was pre-eminent in the decorative arts, particularly in Northern Europe. Depicting religious scenes, figures, and moral lessons to those all those who entered the edifice, the windows were not simply decorative art, but made the stories and lessons of people's faith visually accessible.
Although the origin of glass is uncertain, it is thought that the material was first created over five thousand years ago somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean. By 1370 BC the Egyptian pharaoh Thothmes had established a glass vessel industry for luxury items such as ointment pots and statuettes of deities. It was not until the invention of the blowpipe in Syria or Israel about 40 BC, however, that mouth-blown glass vessels could be mass-produced cheaply and in more complex shapes than had been available previously. The industry expanded greatly in ancient Rome, so much so that by the third century AD glass makers occupied a specific quarter of the city and had a special tax levied on them. By the fall of the Roman empire there were glass manufacturers throughout the Roman world, and pieces of window glass from this period have been excavated as far north as East Sussex in England. Christian churches began using decorative glass in windows as early as the fourth century AD, but it was not until the twelfth century that stained glass began flourishing as a major art form.
The magnificent windows in cathedrals such as those in Chartres or Canterbury were made possible by the evolution of medieval architecture from the 'Romanesque' to the 'Gothic' style that took place during the eleventh century. The Romanesque style is characterised by thick, solid, stone walls, rounded arches, and small interior spaces and windows. New developments in architecture, originating in the east and possibly introduced to Europe through North Africa and Spain, led to the use of the pointed arch and flying buttress which characterize the Gothic style. These innovations, among others, allowed architects to build structures which were much taller and more vast, and whose walls no longer had to carry the massive weight of the roof. Instead, the walls became the skeleton on which to display often huge and elaborate stained glass windows. One of the first structuress to be redesigned in the gothic style was Saint-Denis, north of Paris. The work took place during the first half of the twelfth century under the direction of Abbot Suger (1081-1151). His writings about the new design of his abbey mark a shift in mindset that accompanied the development of the gothic style and that embraced the stained glass window as an important part of the life and faith of the community.
more about Saint-Denis
A glossary of architectural terms
The use of stained glass in the Middle Ages had significance beyond mere decorative enhancement of sacred buildings. Perhaps one of the reasons stained glass achieved pre-eminence among forms of monumental painting in northern Europe was because it so perfectly embodied the way medieval people viewed their relationship to God. The theme of light appears repeatedly in the Bible, from the first words of God in the Book of Genesis, "Let there be light" (fiat lux) to St. John describing Jesus as "the True Light" and Christ describing himself as "the light of the world". Light was thus closely connected with God, and the ever-shifting quality of the light passing through stained glass served to illuminate church interiors with a visible reminder of the divine. St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) compared the sunlight harmlessly passing through stained glass windows to the Holy Spirit passing through the Virgin. The fact that light is vital to the effect of stained glass mirrored the medieval mindset that God and man were inextricably linked in (and both were necessary to) the creation of reality, and nowhere was this more apparent than in the elaborate stained glass windows of the great cathedrals. Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis believed that stained glass and other ornamentation was not only a beautiful addition to his new abbey but, more importantly, served a religious function in the spiritual journey of those who would view the splendour. He maintained that
A contemporary of Suger, a monk calling himself Theophilus wrote that in adorning the House of God those who enter are shown a likeness of Paradise, "you have caused them to praise God the Creator in this creation and to proclaim Him marvellous in His works". Whether or not every parishioner entering a religious building so adorned would be transported into this mystical realm somewhere between Heaven and Earth is unknown, however, the effect of large amounts of stained glass is undoubtedly breathtaking. Like the precious gems and metalwork that were used in adorning sacred buildings, stained glass served as a powerful symbol of God's presence in the world.
Not everyone, however, was enamoured with the use of stained glass and other ornamentation in a sacred building. Bernard of Clairvaux, although he favourably compared the light passing through the glass, held that the Church "clothes her stones in gold, and leaves her sons naked ... The curious find their delight here, yet the needy find no relief", and his admonitions were not unjustified. Glass was an expensive commodity, as it could be produced only in small quantities, and the secrets of its production were guarded jealously by glass makers. However, the alternate view, that the stained glass and other finery would serve to enhance the church and spiritually lift those who entered, gained popularity and patronage as the century progressed. Abbot Suger enjoyed the patronage of King Louis VI of France himself, which ensured that Suger's abbey could be restored in as grand a manner as the abbot saw fit. In the thirteenth century the piety of Louis IX (St. Louis) helped to give impetus to the construction of religious buildings across France. Pilgrims were another source of revenue for churches, and churches and cathedrals could gain funds through the possession of a religious relic, such as a bone from a saint, or a piece of the true cross. The more valuable the relic, the more pilgrims would arrive to see it, and the more money they would leave as thank-offerings, which would in turn be used to embellish the building or to acquire further relics. If a miracle occurred due to a saint's intercession, such scenes would often be portrayed in stained glass, to be seen by other pilgrims, further enhancing the church's reputation and popularity with travellers. At Canterbury, for example, there are numerous windows narrating the miracles associated with St Thomas, including a depiction of Petronilla of Polesworth, an epileptic nun who was cured by dipping her feet in water containing the saint's blood.
The art of stained glass windows could convey theological truths and abstract symbolism, but, perhaps more importantly, it was used to visually represent the popular images, signs, and symbols of the Christian faith to a medieval viewing public, reaffirming their beliefs and connecting them through familiar visual elements. Glass that was to be placed far above the ground usually featured large, imposing figures depicted in simple, powerful lines that could more easily be seen from far below. The lower windows that were more accessible to passers-by, conversely, usually featured more detailed and intricate panels depicting smaller figures or events. Such a placement would suggest that the glass was intended to be viewed and comprehended by the public as more than vague illuminated and colourful forms. The stories and symbolism contained in the glass panels would have been much more familiar to the people of the Middle Ages than it is in our own day. Saints were often depicted with certain items that would easily identify them: St. Catherine of Alexandria, for example, could be identified by the wheel on which she was martyred, and St. Jerome was commonly depicted with a lion lying at his feet. Even the smallest details often had significance for the viewer. For example, the inclusion in the background of some stained glass panels of the plant geum, which in the Middle Ages was believed to have healing powers, was associated with Christ and signified His presence. For medieval people, the windows served as a visual memory aid at a time when books were few and usually only available to the rich. It is interesting to note, however, that some windows were placed so high that no mortal eye could be expected to see them. This reinforces the idea that the glass was not only for the enlightenment of its human audience; it also had a spiritual function of glorifying God for His own sake, another example of the medieval mindset of the communion between the human and the divine.
One of the most popular representations to be found in twelfth-century stained glass is that of the Jesse tree. This image depicts the descendants of the Old Testament figure of Jesse, father of King David, down to Christ himself. The connection of Christ with his mortal ancestors was popular in the Middle Ages, perhaps because it humanised Christ and made Him less remote. The depiction of the Jesse tree usually has a large figure of Jesse lying horizontally, either awake or sleeping, with the trunk of a tree emerging from behind his form and branching upwards to encompass his various descendants. At the top of the tree was usually depicted Mary holding the child Jesus. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the depictions in stained glass broadened to reflect the growing popularity of both narrative elements and the Virgin Mary. New Testament events that were commonly portrayed in glass in the thirteenth century include the birth of the Virgin, the Annunciation, the Nativity, the wedding at Cana, and the Raising of Lazarus, among others. The stories of saints were also commonly depicted, especially local saints associated with the building such as Hugh of Lincoln or Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. Increasing numbers of churches and cathedrals were dedicated to Mary in the thirteenth century, as the Virgin became a much more popular religious figure who began to be worshipped in her own right. The enormous rose windows in cathedrals such as those in Chartres Cathedral or Notre Dame de Paris are themselves a symbol of Mary, and were often filled with depictions of scenes from her life.
The fact that one of the guidelines for popular art is for the artist to be unknown is, perhaps, a little redundant when discussing the art of the middle ages as very few artists took credit for the work they produced. The terms 'glazier' and 'glass-painter' could be used almost interchangeably in the early middle ages, as the craft of colouring glass and the application of a painted pattern or picture to finished pieces of glass were often done by the same person. Like other medieval artists, glass painters were not a class apart, and they often had to act as both designers and craftsmen in the completion of a commission. Glaziers worked closely with masons, carpenters, and smiths on various buildings, and were often called upon to maintain or repair existing windows, as the glass itself was very valuable because it could only be produced in small quantities for great price.
The fact that one of the guidelines for popular art is for the artist to be unknown is, perhaps, a little redundant when discussing the art of the Middle Ages as very few artists took credit for the work they produced. The terms 'glazier' (those who manufactured the glass) and 'glass-painter' (those who physically drew details on the finished window) could be used almost interchangeably in the early Middle Ages, as the craft of colouring glass and the application of a painted pattern or picture to finished pieces of glass were often done by the same person. Like other medieval artists, glass painters were not a class apart, and they often had to act as both designers and craftsmen in the completion of a commission. Glaziers worked closely with masons, carpenters, and smiths on various buildings, and were often called upon to maintain or repair existing windows.
Towards the end of the Middle Ages, various factors contributed to the decline in the use of stained glass on the monumental scale seen in gothic churches and cathedrals. The Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century certainly affected the use of stained glass in sacred buildings across Europe. The Reformation, which positioned itself in opposition to the Catholic Church of Rome and to the cult of saints, religious relics, and pilgrimages, inevitably turned its attention to the art form incorporating so many of these elements in its expression. Between 1521 and the middle of the century many religious artworks and even churches themselves were destroyed across Protestant Europe because they were considered idolatrous and evil. Even countries that remained Catholic, such as France, were often battlegrounds during religious wars, and stained glass production went into decline. Fortunately, stained glass suffered less destruction than other forms of religious iconographic art, largely because the glass was necessary in keeping out the elements, and the great expanse of glass would have been costly to replace with clear glass. William Harrison, in 1577, noted that in England:
Some of the most offensive imagery nevertheless suffered, as was the case in Slimbridge Church, in Gloucestershire, where a fifteenth-century figure of a saint had its face smashed and replaced with white glass by a zealous reformer. The economic effect of this iconoclasm was devastating, as large-scale commissions for churches and other sacred buildings were no longer available to glass painters. Even the new buildings constructed during the Counter-Reformation utilized a new architectural style, that of the baroque, and architects preferred plain glazing to the earlier designs in coloured glass.
In Catholic countries stained glass suffered a decline not only through the physical effects of religious warfare, but also through a general shift in public taste away from large works of stained glass. Ironically, it was a rise in demand glass during the late Middle Ages for use in domestic settings, for merchants' and artisans' homes and shops, which also may have contributed to the lessening in demand for the monumental church windows of the past. New ideas spawned by the Renaissance may also have played a part in the lessening in popularity of stained glass, and demand for the art decreased as classical architecture, which had little call for stained glass, began to replace the gothic structures in which it had been an integral part. The art of stained glass was not only reliant on gothic architecture to support it, but also on the mindset which accompanied it, a mindset in which God and humanity were in intimate collaboration and where understanding and salvation lay in faith. Renaissance ideals, conversely, favoured the development of the individual and the growth of reason over faith as the means to examine the natural world, ideals in which stained glass no longer held its former role in visually expressing the connection between God and humanity. Stained glass as an art form had relied on a host of factors to maintain its pre-eminence and popularity, factors which by the end of the Middle Ages no longer existed and caused the art form to go into decline.
Popular Art | Popular Music | New Media |
Home| Project Team | Sources | Copyright | Funding | Feedback | Sitemap